Emanuel Congregation

5959 N. Sheridan Rd.
Chicago, IL 60660
773/561-5173 info@emanuelcong.org

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Who We Are :: Our History

Emanuel Congregation, a Jewish Reform synagogue affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, was  was founded in 1880 by 14 Jewish and Czechoslovakian families and incorporated in 1898 as “Emanuel Congregation of Chicago.” It is said that “Emanuel” was chosen after Emanuel Redlich, the “matzah man.” As the shames, or synagogue director, went from house to house, collecting the $2.00 a family monthly dues, he also collected matzah orders for Redlich.

In the Beginning. The founding families rented Schlotthauer Hall, on the second floor of a dry-goods store at 338 North Sedgwick Street (at Blackhawk) on the north side, as their first meeting place. Since everyone spoke German, all prayers (Dr. Jastrow’s Prayer Book), sermons, board meetings, and school classes were conducted in German; however, English eventually replaced German by 1901. The Congregation’s first leader was Rabbi Adolph Dushner, who served from 1880-81, and was succeeded by Rabbi Darmstadter. In a short time, Phoenix Hall on Division Street was rented as the Congregation’s home, but was replaced in 1886 by the purchase of a Swedish church at 280 North Franklin Street; thirty families contributed the $10,000 purchase price. The first wedding at Emanuel took place at the new location in 1886 and the daughter of this marriage became the first bride in the Buckingham Place building.

Reform Judaism. In 1893, Emanuel was swept up in the growing trend towards Reform Judaism, and the Board voted to adopt the Reform Prayer Book, the Einhorn Siddur Olath Tamid, and the Congregation resolved to worship with uncovered heads. In 1894, Emanuel merged with Or Chodosh, completing the transformation from Orthodox to Reform Judaism. Because of the larger congregation due to the merger, the Congregation sold the former church and rented temporary space in a Baptist church at the corners of Belden and Halsted until a new building could be constructed. For 15 years, the chapel and basement rooms of the church were used for Emanuel’s services and religious school.

However, by 1896, Emanuel was losing members, and the Board decided that a more accessible location was needed. A lot at Burling and Belden was purchased, but construction was stalled; by 1904 it was apparent that the concentration of Jews was moving even farther north. In 1907, the Congregation sold the Burling lot and purchased a lot on Buckingham Street near Halsted. The cornerstone of the new synagogue was dedicated on June 23, 1907. To raise money for the building, a week-long bazaar was held in the vestry rooms, which was not only a huge financial success (about $6,000 was raised), but also a “unifying social event.” Along with the new building, the synagogue inaugurated Friday evening services and the Union Prayer Book replaced the Einhorn prayer book.

Early Leadership. A series of rabbis had led the Congregation after Rabbi Darmstadter, including Rabbis Charles Austrian, E.B.M. Browne, Julius Newman, Dr. Emanuel Schreiber, and Leo Mannheimer. When Rabbi Mannheimer became ill, Rabbi Felix A. Levy was chosen to succeed him in 1907. Rabbi Levy was chosen partly because “he did not require a large salary or demand a contract, and because he spoke fluent German.” Much loved and admired, Rabbi Levy was to serve the Congregation until 1956, and remained as Rabbi Emeritus until his death in 1963. He became an important figure not only locally, but nationally as well, elected as President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1936-37. 

Affiliates. In the early 1900’s, affiliates emerged. The Gemeinde Frauen Verein, organized in 1897, became a charter member of the National Association of Temple Sisterhoods. The Men’s Club, today’s Emanuel Brotherhood, was organized in 1908, and was also a charter member of the Men of Reform Judaism. Other affiliates included the Fidelia Group (for young women), the YMJA (for young men), and the Kadimah Group, which became in 1928 the Emanuel Junior Alliance (today’s Youth Group).

1920-1930’s. During the 1920’s, the Congregation grew to such an extent that it had to use the People’s Church-Uptown Temple for High Holy Days, an arrangement that lasted until 1954. It also experimented with Sunday morning services, but soon returned to traditional Shabbat services on Saturday. The Great Depression affected many congregants, but Emanuel remained intact through the great devotion of its members. New challenges emerged during the Nazi regime in Germany and World War II, as Emanuel tried to help newcomers bridge language and customs. Many young Emanuelites went to war; and on the home front, congregants dedicated themselves to supporting to the war effort. Monthly newsletter became a tie between home and the battle front.

War and Post-War Years. By the early 1940’s, it became apparent that Emanuel had outgrown its space, and plans began for new space. In June, 1944, a lot was purchased at Sheridan Road and Surf Street; but before plans were completed, it was noted that the body of the Jewish population had again moved northward. The Congregation sold the lot and purchased land at the Congregation’s current location, 5959 North Sheridan Road. The new synagogue was finished in 1954 and dedicated in 1955. In the same year, Rabbi Levy was succeeded by Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman. Rabbi Schaalman escaped Nazi Germany by being awarded a scholarship to Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Schaalman founded the first Reform youth camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin; the Union now has nine such camps. An internationally known scholar, Rabbi Schaalman has served the Reform movement on a national level for many years. Rabbi Schaalman’s colleague, Robert Handwerger, was Emanuel’s first cantor. Jeannette Decker, hired as temporary help in 1927, became the Congregation’s first Executive Director, inventing the position herself.

Recent Past. Emanuel is especially proud of its long traditional of nationally recognized Reform rabbis. When Rabbi Schaalman retired in 1986, he was succeeded by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit (1986-93), who had served previously as assistant rabbi. Rabbi Edelheit was especially interested in social action and the AIDS epidemic. Rabbi Schaalman served as interim rabbi during a year of transition. the Congregation then engaged Rabbi David Sofian (1993-2004), who was regarded as an exceptional teacher. As the Reform movement tended towards more conservative practice, Rabbi Sofian introduced some of these ideas to the congregation.

Today. Emanuel has about 400 members. In keeping with its long tradition of nationally significant rabbinical guidance, Emanuel places emphasis on adult education. In addition, Emanuel houses the Chicago Jewish Day School and Or Chadash, a gay- and lesbian- oriented congregation.

Currently, the Congregation is served by Rabbi Michael R. Zedek, a nationally known scholar and speaker. Prior to his engagement as Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Zedek served for four years as the Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. Previously, he served for 26 years as the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. A recipient of the Danforth Graduate Fellowship for outstanding teaching and a Fulbright-Hays Grant for advanced study in the United Kingdom, Rabbi Zedek is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hamilton College, New York. In addition to his professional activities, Rabbi Zedek is deeply involved in civic affairs, having served on a number of national and international boards. Rabbi Zedek serves as a host of the weekly radio program, “Religion on the Line.” Congregational Cantor Michelle D. Friedman leads music at services as well as teaches bar/bat mitzvah students. As an energetic, and patient teacher, Cantor Friedman is considered a chief asset of the Congregation. Alison Lewin leads the religious school of 180 students.